Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

Read June 2019
Recommended for fans of historical vampires
★   ★   1/2

I have a complicated relationship with Hambly’s writing: I find that I enjoy her structure and style a great deal, but am often ambivalent about plot and narrative choices. Though I  really enjoyed Those Who Hunt the Night, the first in the James Asher series about a British spy and his uneasy alliance with a centuries-old Spanish vampire, mixed reviews for subsequent books, and limited interest in time-period fiction, meant I moved on until the latest book in the series crossed my feed. Unfortunately, this one was a miss.

The plot begins at an engagement party. Asher is in Peking with his mentor, Karlebach, to discover more about the mindless Others, a type of creature even vampires fear. Asher is talking to the vampire Ysidro at the party when the betrothed young woman is found dead outside, her drunken suitor passed out next to her. The father of the fiance, a British diplomat, recognizes Asher from his previous service and threatens to blow his cover unless Asher clears his son’s name.

It seems straight-forward, but Asher and Hambly have trouble tying the plots together, so the stories progress in spurts. A short investigation into the death (viewing the body, talking to his friends) leads to local politics. Before long, Asher is back to seeking the Others. These portions are inevitably accompanied by Karlebach haranguing Asher for trusting a vampire and Asher musing on how Ysidro is fundamentally an evil creature because he must kill others to stay alive (though Asher admits to himself he’s done the same thing as a spy).  Asher’s lack of ethical conviction in the face of Ysidro’s consistent friendship is dismaying. For those looking for the supernatural angle, it doesn’t feel like it is integrated until very late in the story; if one is looking for a ‘vampire’ book, it might prove unsatisfying.

Viewpoint is primarily that of Asher, although it does tap into his wife, Julia’s perspective a few times. She’s our nominally plucky heroine, although somewhat hampered by a vanity that insists she remove her spectacles every time someone might see her wearing them. This is a major characteristic that is noted many times by both Julia and Asher, that became quite tiresome in a writer of Hambly’s caliber.

Setting is undoubtedly realistic, with the obvious exception of the mysterious Others. I mean, not that I would be able to validate, but there was lots of institutionalized sexism, political and personal racism, political graft, marginalization of the servant/Chinese class, and so forth, so I can only assume it was real. For a short time, I wondered if I would be able to continue, as a section was particularly filled with vitriol against the Chinese. This is coupled with a sub-plot about abuse of prostitutes. Hambly might have done her research here, but I can’t say that I needed it repeatedly emphasized. The section I most  enjoyed was a description of an enclave where a number of low-status people were living and interacting, and managed to care for one of the characters though they were ‘invisible’ status.

The ending was two-fold, and one part a definite surprise. I didn’t feel we had any build-up to it, but I did like the concept a great deal. The other ending was gratuitously thriller-esque, and I don’t know how we slipped from 1915 to a Die Hard movie.

In some ways, this reminds me stylistically of Well’s Death of the Necromancer, only Wells was more sensible and left her (fantasy) ‘period’ building to the physical world and economics over racial groups, and integrated more humor. I think next time, I’ll remind myself to re-read that over another stab at this series.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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